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Thursday 17 October 2013

London Restaurant Reviews - Ametsa with Arzak Instruction

Name: Ametsa with Arzak Instruction

Where: The Halkin Hotel, Halkin Street, Belgravia, London, SW1X 7DJ, www.halkinhotel.net

Cost: The tasting menu is priced at £105 or £145 with matching wines. We had the matching wine option.

About: Ametsa was formed in 2013 as a collaboration between the Como Hotel Group (of which The Halkin is a part) and Elena and her father Juan Mari Arzak, the founder of the legendary, eponymous 3 Michelin starred restaurant in San Sebastián, Spain.  

I had a fantastic dinner at Arzak this summer, so was keen to see what the family is getting up to in London. It is the first time that the Arzaks have collaborated in a restaurant outside of Spain, and the opening was keenly anticipated. 

It was surprising then to see a lukewarm reception after its launch, followed by a number of critical reviews. Issues were raised about what some considered to be the over-complexity of its modernist cooking - too clever by half - and also for the restaurant’s stark decor and the lack of atmosphere. In addition, the kitchen is headed by a relatively unknown chef trained by the Arzaks, and the fact that neither Elena nor her father were to be present in the kitchen, also raised a few other eyebrows.  However, Ametsa has gone on to notch up its first star in the 2014 Michelin Guide announcement, so we decided to go with an open mind.

The decor is indeed quite stark, with plain white walls, very little artwork, and the ceiling is decorated with hundreds of glass test-tube like vessels filled with orange - yellow powdered spices. To me, the restaurant felt like the canteen of a modern art gallery, with bright lights and a minimalist style. While the focus should of course be on the food, at the tasting menu price,  guests might expect a greater sense of occasion than Ametsa delivers.

What we ate/drank: We kicked off with a selection of small-eats (aperitivos) including chorizo wrapped in mango, deep-fried lotus root with a creamy fish mousse, kataifi (finely shredded filo pastry which looks like very thin vermicelli noodles) filled with scorpionfish cake and foie-gras and apple toasts.

They all tasted delicious and were well thought out in my opinion. I particularly enjoyed the contrasting textures and sweet/savoury flavours in the chorizo and mango combination. The kataifi was served on a metal spike, and eaten from a long wooden skewer, it again had an interesting texture and a delicate flavour. The lotus root slices were deep-fried and very crispy and worked well with the accompanying fish mousse. I loved the combination of foie-gras and apple on toast, creamily unctuous yet refreshing.

We opted for the wine flights to match the tasting menu. To accompany the ‘aperitivos’, we had a glass of rose cava ‘Gramona Argent’ Gran Reserva from Catalonia. Made from 100% Pinot Noir, this cava had a lovely scent of red berry fruit and vanilla, with refreshing acidity to cut through the rich foie-gras and fish dishes.

The ‘aperitivos’ were followed by 3 different starters (entrantes). The first was a “scallop with cassava soufflé” - the scallops were large, sweet and tender like top quality sashimi scallops I have eaten in Japan. They were served with a red 'mojo' (i.e.sauce) made from scallop roe.  The 'soufflé' was a crisp purple shell similar to those I ate at Arzak, made from cassava flour mixed with fresh beetroot juice which provided a different texture to the dish as well as making the whole dish look a tad intriguing.

A more technically interesting dish was the Scottish king prawn with crispy rice vermicelli noodles, served on a spider crab stew San Sebastián style, with a rich sweetcorn soup.  Garnished with petals, this had an intense bisque-like flavour from the cooked shellfish, and very well balanced by the rich sweetcorn soup.

The third starter, was a clever dish of egg with squid noodles. The egg had been cooked in a waterbath at 63 degrees for 30 minutes, then shelled, breaded and deep fried, and served on a bed of squid sliced into noodle-like slivers. The squid ink sauce had a richly concentrated, savoury quality bringing the various components together. This was one of my favourite dishes on the menu.

With the starters, we had a glass each of La Gitana Manzanilla and of Pastrana Single vineyard Manzanilla Pasada. I loved the refreshing acidity of both these bone-dry sherries, but the Pastrana had just a slight extra kick of intensity and fragrance reflecting its longer ageing.

We also had a glass of Albariño 2012- La Liebre y la Tortuga (the hare and the tortoise).  Albariño is one of my favourite white wines made from the eponymous grape, coming from Rias Baixas in northwestern Spain, and this was an elegant example, with citrus fruit notes, good acidity and a rich finish. 

The fish course (pescado) was grilled tuna loin with caper sauce . The tuna was served with a garnish of shallots stuffed with cantaloupe melon. This was a simple but enjoyable dish, the tuna very fresh, meaty and perfectly cooked although not as sophisticated in conception as the other dishes which preceded it.

To accompany the tuna, we had a glass of Silencis 2012 from Raventos i Blanc in Penedes. A blend of Xarelo and Chardonnay, this wine is partially oak aged and had a sufficient weight of green fruit to match up to the meaty fish. 

The main course was Pichon con Perdigones (pigeon with shot). The pigeon breast and leg were succulent and very tender, and served with purple potato, butternut squash and the 'shot' made by spherification of rice vinegar and silver powder. It was served with 'sand' made from toasted pistachio and almonds. Molecular gastronomy has been around for a while now and for many has lost its appeal. Having said that, I admit that I still enjoyed the quirky, tongue-in-cheek quality of this dish, and the thought processes behind it.

We washed the pigeon down with a glass of excellent Gran Reserva Especial Cosecha 2004 from Castillo Ygay, Rioja.

The 'pre-dessert', was the much criticised 'moon stones'. Intended to simulate the moon, with 'stones' made from orange juice and Cointreau inside a cocoa butter skin, with 'craters' of red wine and soya sauce, and 'sand' of sesame seed and sugar. I am not quite sure why this divides opinion so much, I personally enjoyed the flavours in the dish, and thought it was creative and a bit of fun.

The ‘pre-dessert” (love the idea of pre-desserts) was followed by two desserts -  a delicious clove custard with roasted pineapple ice cream and a wafer of burnt milk, and another, named ‘Passionate’ a refreshing passion fruit cake with with crème anglaise , crunchy milk and soft cheese ice cream. I enjoyed both desserts, they were light, refreshing and beautifully presented.

The desserts were served with a glass of Ariyanas Dulce 2007, from Bodegas Bentomiz, Malaga. A naturally sweet wine made by a Dutch couple who started their vineyard in 2003, this is made from the moscatel grape, and had lovely notes of honey and melon, but with plenty of acidity to prevent it from being cloying.

Likes: A delicious and rather generous tasting menu with a good choice of matching wines by resident sommelier Alvaro, having a pre-dessert followed by 2 delicious desserts was also a very nice touch.

Dislikes: The room is lacking in atmosphere, partly due to the starkness of the decor. This was also the case when I reviewed the previous incumbents of the space (Nahm, see review here). 

Verdict: The food at Ametsa was very good and I am pleased to have tried it. Despite the lukewarm reviews and my recent experiences at two of the 3-Michelin restaurants in San Sebastián (including Arzak) I thought the standard of cooking at Ametsa was up there with what I had experienced in the Basque country.  The style of 'molecular' or 'modernist' cuisines offered may not be everyone's cup of tea, but that chef Sergi Sanz and his team are highly talented I have absolutely no doubt. 

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